Espionage, Black-Ops, and a Dyslexic Spy

Just in time (but not really) for the holidaze, here are 5 of the most wicked books I’ve read and reviewed in my role as contributing editor—covering political science—with New York City’s iconic Library Journal magazine.

These reviews are not easily found, as LJ is a subscription-only publication usually present in most North American libraries, universities, and research institutes. I’ve been a contributor since Spring 2016.

Without further ado . . . here we go:


CITIZEN SPIES: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society

Review by William GrabowskiCITIZEN

Given the present political divisiveness, this comprehensive exploration of American “spy-and-snitch” culture is bound to polarize readers. Analyzing citizen-policing initiatives from “Hue and Cry” posters in 1775 to the first organized police departments, World War I and II, the Cold War, D.A.R.E. and Call-911 programs, author Reeves’ cutting insight deconstructs protocols and policies of what he calls “America’s surveillance society.”

Rather than abstract layouts of charts and graphs, the book carefully examines historical accounts and court cases up to present day, and the withering effect of police crowd-sourcing on America’s dream of security, comfort, and liberty. DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program sparked 9/11-spawned paranoia into a seeming blaze of suspicion and outright perceptual errors, resulting in apprehension of innocent people going about everyday business. The American Civil Liberties Union claims that U.S. antiterrorism agencies receive roughly 8,000 tips—per day—from seeing/spying citizens. Examples of actual reports show practically all to be ludicrous, or coming from petty vindictiveness between neighbors. The underlying theme is that all are guilty until they can prove otherwise—but the negative attention can end careers, and even lives.

VERDICT: A valuable perspective supported by copious notes and references, for readers interested in the evolution of American surveillance culture. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc., New York City. No redistribution permitted. Reprinted with permission.

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THE SECRET STATE: A History of Intelligence and Espionage
Review by William GrabowskiSECRET

The fusion of internet, mass-media distortion, and profit-driven news reportage has created an environment light on—if not tacitly hostile toward—facts. Colonel Hughes-Wilson’s history of intelligence and espionage is weighty in two regards: detail and daring. One of Britain’s top military historians, he chronicles and analyzes the traditional intelligence cycle of Direction, Collection, Collation, Interpretation, and Dissemination, revealing its failings, triumphs, and warning against bureaucratic bloat.

The uncluttered text is augmented by maps and charts, appearing precisely where needed, showing patterns and illustrating protocols. The book’s assessment of global intelligence ranges from ancient Egypt and Rome, through early photographic technology in World War I, the Cold War electronic revolution (with Joseph Stalin among the first to ignore crucial intelligence), the catastrophic horrors—and U.S. intell failures—of 9/11, into today’s cyberwar battlespace. Noteworthy is the absence of celebratory hype that sometimes colors this field, but the author gives credit where due, and frankly describes the spy’s life as a jarring mix of boredom and extreme danger.

VERDICT: The balance of history, critical analyses, and insider’s perspective on often chilling realities will appeal to any reader interested in learning how global intelligence agencies function, and what they face every day. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc., New York City. No redistribution permitted. Reprinted with permission.

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FINKS: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers
Review by William GrabowskiFINKS

Among the Cold War’s many grim realities, some only now being revealed in the open literature, is the extent of CIA influence on the publishing industry. Author Whitney’s exhaustive research (end matter comprising 54 pages of sources) and interviews uncover details belying the myth of intellectual solidarity and comfort commonly projected onto the literati.

In 1982 John Train, founding managing editor of The Paris Review, offered funding from his NGO, the Afghanistan Relief Committee for a film about that country which amounted to “Cold War propaganda on broadcast television.” Train’s archives from the period document his use of a shell nonprofit with a CIA code name to send journalists on anti-Soviet intelligence missions. Novelist and PR co-founder Peter Matthiessen admitted to out-of-the-loop fellow co-founder Harold “Doc” Humes that, in 1952, the magazine was created as a cover for Matthiessen’s role as a CIA spy. Editor-in-chief George Plimpton was complicit, but apparently toed the line by claiming aesthetics—not politics—guided his decisions. Plimpton’s visits to idol Ernest Hemingway in Cuba are chronicled, as well as the witting and unwitting involvement of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, and others.

VERDICT: Will appeal to readers curious about the political agendas behind CIA manipulation of publishing in America and abroad during the Cold War. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc., New York City. No redistribution permitted. Reprinted with permission.

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WE KNOW ALL ABOUT YOU: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America
Review by William GrabowskiWE

Jeffreys-Jones’ (In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence and others) authoritative survey of mass surveillance in Britain and America is an antidote to shrill conspiracy-speak and its toxic effect on our perceptions of government and private-sector intelligence. The complicated history—worsened by the Cold War and 9/11—of abuse and justice behind official policies, claims the author, calls for universal regulation and oversight, instead of scattering energies and budgets addressing individual concerns over cyber-manipulation and even mind control.

Most surprising is evidence showing more lives harmed daily by aggressive corporate misuse of credit data, employment histories (used for labor-market blacklisting), vacuuming of internet searches, and social media snoops than by Orwell’s Big Brother. Government agencies on both sides of the pond are burning through experts racing to defeat data-encryption keys more advanced than those in the hands of the FBI, NSA, and Britain’s equivalents GCHQ and MI5. The resultant anxieties and tensions afflict whole populations and—as ever—big money controls big data.

VERDICT: A valuable book for anyone seeking a sober, if densely packed, overview of the gap between defenders of privacy and defenders of national security, and how both are threatened by private-sector exploitation. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc., New York City. No redistribution permitted. Reprinted with permission.

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THE SPY WHO COULDN’T SPELL: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets

Review by William GrabowskiSPY

When FBI agent Steven Carr received a FedEx package from the New York field office, he didn’t suspect its contents would consume him. Via an anonymous source at the Libyan consulate, Carr held a number of oddly coded letters written by someone claiming top-secret clearance with the CIA, and offering gravely sensitive data about U.S. spy satellites, air defense, locations of Middle East underground bunkers and more—for a hefty price. Experience with fake documents buffered the agent’s reaction, until he ran across the table of contents for Joint Tactical Exploitation of National Systems (a classified manual for U.S. war fighters), and aerial photographs of Gaddhafi’s yacht in the Mediterranean Sea.

From December 2000 until shortly before 9/11 (and years after catching the perpetrator), Agent Carr’s team, various intell analysts and code-breakers burned their hours unpuzzling seeming nonsense scripting the whereabouts of downloaded, printed caches hidden by one Brian Patrick Regan—a doltish, ill-socialized worker with the highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office. Regan’s dyslexia, hence muddled spelling, might have forever obscured his identity.

What distinguishes this real-world chronicle from similar others (James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory; Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide) is the author’s humane perspective: exploring Regan’s ascent from bullied youth to NRO employee; happy marriage, fatherhood, and descent into alcoholism, infidelity, and bad decisions. Had Regan pursued rational solutions to mounting debt (abetted by wife Anette’s indiscriminate spending, who—even after Regan’s arrest—wondered whether to sell her horse), he would have avoided ruining his life, and endangering thousands of others. Ultimately, Regan’s transgressions strike the reader as tragic, rather than deliberately malicious.

VERDICT: Recommended for spycraft buffs, and general readers curious about U.S. intelligence operations and psychosocial factors behind espionage. © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc., New York City. No redistribution permitted. Reprinted with permission.

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